Alfred Liggins was 23 when we first talked in 1988, working as general sales manager for the two radio stations owned by his mother, Cathy Hughes, and earning $100,000 a year.
"When I look back on my life, back at the vision I had at age 23, I would have spent a lot less time on things that did not matter," he said the other day while sitting in his eighth-floor office in Lanham. "If I had just stayed more focused, how much farther along would I be?"
Liggins is now president and chief executive of a media company called Radio One. What began as a single station, WOL-AM, which Hughes bought in 1980, has since grown into a $2.7 billion operation that includes 66 radio stations, a television station and 2,000 employees.
At 38, he is the company's largest individual stockholder and, according to public documents, earns close to $1 million a year.
So why does he sound like a man who's missed the boat?
"I guess it's the curse of never being satisfied," he said.
This summer, Liggins will take another stab at breaking that curse when he heads up the recently announced joint venture between Radio One and Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator. His vision: to form a television network aimed at an adult African American audience.
The deal has been billed as serious competition for Black Entertainment Television, a black youth-oriented network founded by Robert L. Johnson in 1980 and recently sold to Viacom for a reported $3 billion.
Liggins shrugs off the reputed match-up.
"When I wake up in the morning and think of competing, I don't think of the next black guy," he said. "Bob [Johnson] is not the competition; Viacom and Clear Channel are. Those 200 guys above Bob on the Fortune 400 list, that's who I've got my sights on."
Liggins's mother is quite proud.
"There is no question that I laid the foundation," said Hughes, the founder and chairman of Radio One. "But every brick in the skyscraper that sits atop that foundation was laid by him."
Hughes said that she first noticed her son's business acumen when he was 13 and began taking odd jobs after school and during the summer. He'd earn up to $100 a week.
"One day, he comes home with a pair of designer jeans that he'd bought," Hughes recalled. "So I sat down with him and said if you are going to have someone's name plastered on your behind, it should be yours."
When young Alfred didn't seem to get the point, Hughes laid it out for him in no uncertain terms.
"It's just me and you," she told him, referring to her status as a single mother. "Since you are actually going to pay somebody to be a walking advertisement for their jeans and help them build their business, you are also going to help me build mine."
So she started making the eighth-grader pay rent -- $20 a week to live in their apartment.
"People said I was so cruel," Hughes said. "But that was my method of teaching responsibility."
After graduating from the District's Wilson High in 1983, Liggins headed out to Los Angeles, where he worked as a production assistant in the record industry. He returned home in 1985, went to work for Hughes as a radio advertising salesman and began night school at the University of the District of Columbia.
A year later, he dropped out to sell ads full time, sometimes having to wait in the lobby of a prospective advertiser's office and being given less than five minutes to make his pitch.
"I couldn't even give away air time," Liggins recalled.
These days, the chief executives of major advertising agencies return his calls within minutes.
"There have been tremendous strides in the advancement of many African Americans," Liggins said. "Look at Richard Parsons at AOL; look at what's happening at Radio One. I'm fortunate to be a part of the ascendancy."
Nevertheless, Liggins acknowledged, any venture that focuses primarily on African Americans is bound to encounter a unique set of obstacles, including racism. But he is always prepared to do business, no matter what.
"I am good at not letting other people's problems stop me," he said. "If a person is central to the accomplishment of my goal, I will find a way to make him see the world the way I see it."
Although Liggins had dropped out of UDC, he still managed to enroll in an executive study program at the Wharton School of Business and, in 1998, earn an MBA. It helped, he said, to have already pulled off several $30 million and $40 million deals -- and have no need for financial aid.
Liggins is single, a status that his mother says she hopes will change.
"When you're married," Hughes said, "a wife can help to balance you, keep you from working so hard that you end up having a heart attack and dying young, or end up as a lonely old man."
Liggins said he is confident that all of his dreams, which include being married as well as becoming a media mogul, will come true. But first things first.
"It's always nice when you have a dream that's viable and someone who is credible, smart and powerful agrees with you," Liggins said.
He was talking about Comcast -- not a wife.
To read Milloy's 1988 column about Alfred Liggins, go to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/metro/columns